The Medieval Plague and Full Employment

January 15th, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Over a year ago, in the midst of reading the great Ken Follett historical novel, World Without End, I was struck by some similarities between their conflicts and our own, and I wrote a post about it:

[The book] got me thinking about today’s intellectual climate.  Obviously, I’m being a bit hyperbolic (not to mention reductionist), but there are ways in which today’s debates remind of those from the 14th century, where, in debates on practical matters, fact-based reason was easily defeated by fact-less assertion.

So it would be interesting to learn how the transformation to the age of reason occurred.  What were the historical precedents?  Was it bottom up, top down, some combination?  What caused this intellectual, cultural, and political shift?

Commenters provided many great references and I followed up on many of them, but I hadn’t thought enough about this until I stumbled on the TV series of the book, available on Netflix, btw.  It’s quite a good production, but doesn’t come anywhere close to the nuance in the book.

Anyway, much of the literature explaining the evolution from the dark ages to the age of reason emphasizes the role of the “mortality”—i.e., the plague, the “black death.”  The connection becomes clear in the Follett story, as the power of the book’s dual oppressors—the church and the feudal landlords—was severely diminished by the massive plague.

In particular, the fact that landowners faced a shortage of labor turned out to be an extremely important factor in liberating the laboring class, such that they could sell their labor to the highest bidder.  Of course the social, cultural, and political evolution of the period obviously involvled a lot more than this one factor, but every historical account I read underscored it and many noted that this type of economic progress was more evident in places where the plague was more severe.

In other words, it was driven by the bargaining power derived from labor shortage.

Now, let me be crystal clear that I’m not advocating plague.  I am once again shouting into the policy abyss, advocating full employment as a way to create the pressure in the job market for more equitable distribution of growth.

Does not this example suggest that greater bargaining power and economic clout will get rid of the Congressional obstructionists of whom I was reminded in the characters of Petranilla and Godwyn, the deeply corrupt mother and son team who wreak havoc throughout the book?  Probably not, but who knows?  Annie Lowrey has a pretty convincing piece here suggesting that faster, and I’d add more equitable, growth leads to better politics.

And even if it doesn’t, I’d still be for it.

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8 comments in reply to "The Medieval Plague and Full Employment"

  1. anatol says:

    There is an old blog post by Krugman:, where he pours cold water on the theory of the Great Plague’s role in abolition of serfdom, rather persuasively, I must say, especially given the timeline.

  2. Charles E Lewis Jr says:

    I don’t post often but when I do I will probably sound like a broken record. I see no way to get this economy going until there is enough disposable income in the hands of a critical mass of the middle class which leads us back to increasing inequality that’s growing unabated. In an economy that’s 70 percent consumer driven, demand is stifled because wages are stagnant. This seems to me where economists get stymied because it is heretical to suggest that income and wealth needs to be redistributed.

  3. Kevin Rica says:

    That can never happen as long as we have an immigration policy designed specifically to prevent shortages — especially of unskilled, low-wage labor.

    Since W was sworn in, we have let in almost 1 million legal immigrants per year, but created 300 thousand net private sector jobs.

    We can have policies designed to create labor shortages or policies designed to prevent them. But we can’t have both simultaneously.

    I understand that the Obama Administration will propose a “guest worker” plan as part their immigration proposal.

    On the other hand — real and retroactive workplace controls on immigration would reduce the labor force — even if illegal immigrants don’t self-deport.

    BTW, rooting for a return of the bubonic plague is not a reasonable way to resolve this dilemma.

  4. Becky says:

    The more people become unemployed, the more likely they will become the “plague”, which will diminish the rulers. But is it the time? I highly doubt that, because I think our society is not that helpless. Looking at the Labor law posters posted in work place, which is filled with info on labor laws, I cannot help think, if we donot even have the chance to work, how can we be protected by labor law? In a slack situation, how many people are desperate for employment when they cannot obtain an opportunity? We indeedly need full employment.

  5. JC says:

    Read Rise of the Western World, by Douglass C. North and Robert Paul Thomas. They spend a lot of time on the land, labor, capital variations over time, and resulting influences on economic growth and the distribution of wealth.

  6. Paul Jonker-Hoffrén says:

    Dear Mr. Bernstein,

    You are not alone in your observation – the black plague is in fact a central turning point in history, especially in terms of employment, as emphasised by Damon Acemoglu and James Robinson of the book Why Nations Fail. You are probably aware of it but it is enlightening reading!

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Yes–I have the book and I agree–that’s an enlightening section, very consistent with the post.

  7. JimZ says:

    Certainly the “bleeding” metaphor from Follett’s great book applies to today’s “expansionary austerity” crowd.